Updated: Monday, September 25, 2017, 10:00 AM
The scene outside the Mexico City elementary school as crews worked furiously to find a child they believed was still alive under the rubble played out before news cameras as the country held out hope for a rescue after Tuesday’s devastating 7.1-magnitude earthquake killed at least 245 people and injured more than 2,000.
The images of rescuers scrambling over the gray concrete rubble working side by side with civilians as families patiently waited for any news took me back 32 years, when I was in the crowd watching a similar scene unfold at a maternity hospital after an even more massive quake in Mexico City.
Then, as now, I was stunned by the devastation. What the TV images don’t always show, however, is another lasting impression from witnessing the 1985 quake: the extraordinary resilience of the people of Mexico City.
As the world watched on TV, the tiniest of survivors, born just days or hours before the earthquake struck, were pulled to safety out of the flattened hospital. Those “miracle babies” became symbols of hope.
Just as striking to me, however, was how level-headed people were in crisis, and how they mobilized immediately to help friends, family, and total strangers.
I was sent to Mexico City as a news photographer to cover the aftermath of the 1985 8.1-magnitude earthquake that killed thousands. I was in a ground-floor restaurant in the Camino Real Hotel when another immensely powerful earthquake shook the city.
Before I realized what was happening, I felt light-headed and wondered whether I was dehydrated. I went for my glass of water and saw ripples on the surface. Then my fork moved. A child at the next table jumped up and let go with an ear-piercing scream.
I grabbed my photo gear and staggered toward the doors, joining the exodus of people careering into each other, some falling to the floor. Chairs and light fixtures crashed to the ground, a cart overturned, and the lights went out.
What they say about the seconds an earthquake lasts is true: it does feel like forever.
People who got to the exit first were holding the rest of us back — so we wouldn’t be impaled by the window glass falling and shattering onto the road in front of the door.
When it was safe, we left the hotel and went back to the rubble of a building where, hours before, rescuers were trying to remove survivors of the first quake. The rescuers had all left. They didn’t expect anyone could have survived the second quake.
I photographed a young boy at a hospital who had been hit in the head with falling debris but who was walking around dressed in blue pajamas. His head was swathed in a large bandage, and his eyes were nearly swollen shut. He would be fine, his mother assured us.
At a sports stadium that had been commandeered as a makeshift morgue, there was a long line of people sadly but calmly waiting to get through the gates. Inside, bodies were packed in ice with only their heads and hands showing so relatives could identify them.
A layer of mist from dry ice clung to the ground, giving the scene an even more macabre feel. Ambulances and cars would arrive carrying bodies terribly disfigured by crush injuries. Some people collapsed when they found their loved ones; some vomited. Medical workers wandered the stadium, offering tetanus shots.
Throughout the city, people brought supplies and water to the hardest-hit areas. Everywhere, people were searching for friends and loved ones. Sirens sounded without end. A woman pulled a working telephone from the rubble of a pancaked building and was squatting in the road, making calls.
But other parts of this enormous city appeared untouched. It was still possible to catch a taxi, order a meal, and check into a hotel.
At night, we slept with our hotel doors open, more worried about another tremor jamming the door shut than about intruders. Elevators were for the foolish. Everyone took the stairs.
Surviving a strong earthquake is a matter of luck.
Months after I returned home, I happened to drive across the upper part of the George Washington Bridge. As a native New Yorker, I had crossed that span more times than I could recall. The traffic stopped and the bridge began to vibrate the way it always does from the cars and trucks below. But this time, it felt like the start of a quake. It took all my self control not to bolt from the car.
An earthquake is the ultimate betrayal. Cars will collide, planes may fall from the sky, and trains will come off the tracks. They are man-made and can be flawed. But there’s no preparing for rock-solid ground heaving up like water in a glass.
I have nothing but admiration for those who live in Mexico City and how they carry on after the disasters of last week, 1985, and countless others.